I tried not to think about the 33-hour train ride to Gokarna. Although I’ve completed plenty of long distance rides in India now without losing it, anticipation of them still makes me anxious. Even at this age, I find it hard to sit still for any length of time. Granted, trains have an advantage over planes or buses; I can walk up and down the carriage, weaving around people spilling into the aisle – babies underfoot, large men stretching out, and so on. Reaching the end of the carriage, I can stand in front of the door open to the outside; feel the fresh air on my face, and watch the countryside fly by — if there aren’t three other people already standing in the door. When we pull into a station, I can risk jumping off for a few minutes, just time for chai in a paper cup, watching the buzz on the platform.
Much of the time can be spent sleeping, provided crying babies or snoring fellow passengers don’t disturb the fragile slumber. In this case, the 33 hours was spread across two nights and one day, hopefully, plenty of time for sleep.
Things started out well. The train originated in Bikaner, and boarding at 10 pm, we were the only two in our four-person compartment. An empty carriage, no curious Indians wanting to talk late with Gerard. So for the first night, we slept in peace with the compartment to ourselves. The only downside, it was very cold because we were still in the north and there was little heat on the train.
We woke in the morning to breakfast. Thankfully our train had a pantry car, not always a given. So my insecurity around food was not an issue. The boys took our lunch and dinner orders, and the meals turned out to be tastier than the average train food we’ve had. There may have been no real chai on the train, only ‘dip-dip’ tea — a tea bag and powdered milk. (What a disgrace in the land of chai.) But chai wallahs would board the train at major stations. Things were going quite smoothly so far. So what was the angst about?
As we’ve mentioned before, one of the highlights of train travel has always been the people we meet. And this journey was no exception. At Ahmedabad, a young husband and wife with a three-year old daughter joined us. As is often the case, the wife could speak a little more English than the husband, but conversation was still limited. Nevertheless, they were so friendly. Vipin Dass is in the military near the Pakistani border in Gujarat, his family living with him. They were happy to be returning home to Kerala on a month’s leave. The little girl, Vidu, was cute, well behaved and not at all shy. The day passed quickly chatting with them. From time to time the boys from the pantry car would pass through, and the couple bought almost every snack, deep fried vadas (lentil patties), samosas, fried bananas, and then insisted we sample some. By the time the second night arrived, we were as comfortable as family, and they were insisting we come visit them in Kerala on our next trip. After Vidu threw a tantrum, which was not so surprising due to her sugar intake, we all went to sleep.
I woke up at 4 am ready to get off the train. Five more hours to go, but no problem. Breakfast, chai, chit-chat and then get down at 9.30. It had been all clear in my head. A fly in the ointment — we were already behind schedule. Vipin Dass had a printout and had been keeping track of the delay. Indian trains are notoriously late, so it was no surprise, but it fueled my anxiety. This morning the delay had grown to three hours and counting, as the train sat idling on the track. Signal problems, they say.
My latent claustrophobia was also kicking in. I’d had enough of being cramped on a train. When I told Gerard, his remark was, “Cramped? Go back one carriage to general seating and sit there for a while. And then we can talk about cramped. What is your problem?” No support whatsoever. The image came back to me of the scrum at Ahmedabad; people trying to cram into general seating, already full. Not a pretty sight. Maybe he had a point.
Finally, we’d left the last station before ours. We were getting close. But we still had a bus journey of who knows how long before we’d reach Gokarna. And what about lunch? Gerard always well prepared, decided we should stand by the door with our bags ready to get off since it was a small station. We said goodbye to the family but Vipin Dass insisted on coming and standing with us. Twenty minutes later we arrived. Vipin Dass carried my bag onto the platform and shook hands. As the train pulled out, I caught sight of the family waving from the window. We’d arrived. Now how do we get to Gokarna?